With his prodigious knowledge of Arab culture, and expertise in Oriental studies (now called Middle Eastern studies) as well as Jewish religion and history, Abraham Shalom Yahuda was a much sought-after speaker on the lecture circuit. However, one lecture in particular made it into the headlines of the 1939 Passover edition of the venerated British Jewish newspaper The Jewish Chronicle: “BUILDING OF THE TABERNACLE – Evidence of Biblical Authenticity – HEBREWS AT THE TIME OF EXODUS” (March 24, 1939).
The newspaper enthusiastically reported that Prof. Yahuda “delivered a lecture last week on ‘The Building and Craftsmanship of the Tabernacle,’ […] accompanied by the showing of a model, specially built for Professor Yahuda of the Tabernacle, and it aroused great interest. The model was complete down to the most minute detail […] in strict accordance with Dr. Yahuda’s views […] [Yahuda] revealed a perfect knowledge of absolute craftsmanship and of architecture.” (ibid.).
How did a boy from the Sephardic community of the Old Yishuv in Jerusalem wind up studying for a doctorate in Semitic languages in Germany? What drew him, in the midst of his academic career, to undertake the complex and Sisyphean task of crafting a model of the Tabernacle? And most curiously, what does the model, now in the Yahuda Collection at the National Library of Israel, look like? In order to answer these questions, we must go back in time to Jerusalem of the late 19th century, which was just beginning to expand beyond the Old City’s walls.
From Jerusalem to Germany
The year is 1877. Abraham Shalom is born to the Yahuda family living in the Even Yisrael neighborhood, the sixth to be built outside the walls. His mother was originally from Germany and his father was the scion of a distinguished and wealthy family originally from Iraq. In Jerusalem of those days, such mixed ethnic marriages were rare, but in his family, it was expected, as Abraham Shalom writes in his memoirs:
In those days, the Sephardic and Ashkenazic communities were estranged. [However] my grandfather’s father, Rabbi Shlomo Yehezkel Yahuda, who had come from Iraq to Jerusalem, because of his charity and generous support of many scholars, was beloved by all communities, Sephardim and Ashkenazim alike… and he tried with all his might to endear the communities to each other.
And the first thing he did was to give his daughter Sara’s hand in marriage to Rabbi Yehoshua Yellin of Łomża, and to betroth his eldest son Shaul to the daughter of Rabbi Yeshaya Bardaki, one of the great Ashkenazic rabbis and important community leaders, and his younger son Faraj Haim to the daughter of the Chabad follower Rabbi Israel Shapira from a distinguished family from Poland. My father, Rabbi Benjamin, also followed in his footsteps and sought to draw the Ashkenazim closer, and hired melamdim (religious tutors) from the community for my elder brother and myself.
(Abraham Shalom Yahuda, When I Studied Rashi [Hebrew])
From a young age, Abraham Shalom was taught Torah, Jewish law, Mishnah and Talmud and other religious texts according to Jewish tradition, by private tutors hired by his parents. Yahuda describes it thus:
My father, being well-to-do, would pay a well-known tutor double and triple the going rate on condition that he not take on more than two or three additional students besides me, and who must be more advanced in their studies, in order to stimulate my scholarly envy. He did the same with all of my tutors. Indeed, this was to my benefit, particularly, a few years later, when I was studying Talmud. (Ibid.)
In his teens, he began studying other subjects, also with private tutors, Arabic language in particular, which became his great passion. At age 17, he published an article on the Arabic language in the newspaper HaMelitz, and the book Kadmoniyot Ha’Aravim (“Antiquities of the Arabs”) about the history of Arab culture before Islam. Shortly after, he wrote another article titled Nedivei ve’Giborei Arav (“The Nobles and Heroes of Arabia”).
Yahuda, wanting to pursue higher education in the field of Oriental studies, traveled for that purpose, to the birthplace of this scientific field, which, as chance would have it, was also the birthplace of his mother. He studied at various universities in Germany and received his doctorate in 1904.
A Zionist of Arabia
Oriental studies, as developed in Germany, included both Jewish and Bible studies as well as Islamic and Middle Eastern studies, so that by the end of his academic training, Abraham Shalom Yehuda was an expert in several fields. Being in Europe also opened up new intellectual and social horizons for him and he forged personal connections with scholars and researchers as well as with international statesmen, leaders and members of the elite. He was invited to give lectures at universities throughout Europe and even at the court of the King of Spain, a connection he later leveraged in order to aid persecuted Jews.
In addition to his academic career, Yahuda also became a Zionist activist, befriending Shaul Tchernichovsky and Prof. Joseph Klausner, and even meeting with Theodor Herzl in London. Yahuda describes this meeting and Herzl’s great interest in the young Orientalist’s thoughts about current relations between Arabs and Jews in the Holy Land:
Dr. Herzl . . . asked me if I thought the Muslims in the Land of Israel would willingly accept the matter of a Jewish state, if the Sultan will hand over the Land of Israel to the Jews… I was a little embarrassed, because I knew . . . that he knew only a little about the real conditions in the Land of Israel and the situation of the Arab population. I told him that in my opinion we must gain the local Arabs’ sympathy for the plan, and that the Sultan will not take any serious step without the consent of the residents . . . Dr. Herzl sounded disappointed upon hearing my opinion.
(“Herzl’s Attitude to the Arab Problem“, Hed Hamizrah, October 7, 1949 [Hebrew])
Yahuda met Herzl again about a year later at the First Zionist Congress in Basel, where he reiterated his thoughts about initiating direct communication with the country’s Arabs, but to no avail:
Dr. Herzl was adamant that the residents of the Land of Israel have no opinion on this matter, that the Sultan has absolute say. I warned him again . . . emphasizing [the importance of] establishing a closer relationship with the Arabs of the Land of Israel and explaining the Zionist objectives to them as well as the great advantages they will achieve from honest cooperation with us.
I realized from everything he told me about the Arabs that he was completely misled by representatives who never had a clear understanding of the issues surrounding the Arab problem, yet these were the “experts” on whose opinion Dr. Herzl was relying. (Ibid.)
Prof. Yahuda belonged to a stream in the Zionist movement that believed in cooperation and dialogue with the Arabs of the Land of Israel, who knew them, their way of life, their leaders and social codes from childhood. They sought to establish relationships with them and not go above their heads and present them with a fait accompli that would inevitably lead to resistance and rebellion. Apparently, this thinking – and the desire to prove the existence of ancient connections between the Jews and their Arab surroundings – was one of the reasons he decided to invest so much of his time and resources in the Tabernacle model, discussed in more detail below.
“Make this tabernacle and all its furnishings exactly like the pattern I will show you” (Ex 25: 9)
The model of the Tabernacle built by Prof. Abraham Shalom Yahuda is based on the description in the Book of Exodus, chapters 25–35. These contain the commands for the building of the Tabernacle and describe in detail the preparation of the tools and other accessories used in the ceremonies performed in it. The text also includes instructions for the Tabernacle’s dismantling and reassembly in accordance with the practice of the ancient Israelites during their wanderings in the desert, on their way from Egypt to the land of Canaan. Besides relying on the descriptions in the Bible, Yahuda would consult the writings of the great biblical commentator Rashi for whom he had the greatest admiration, on any matter that seemed to him unclear:
I was always impressed with Rashi’s vast knowledge in every field, even in crafts, such as pottery, carpentry, silversmithing, sewing, weaving, and the like regarding the crafts and craftsmanship of the Tabernacle.”
(When I Studied Rashi)
Thus, equipped with the Bible’s instructions and Rashi’s commentary, Yahuda began his work. First, he built the Tabernacle’s frame: the sides made of wooden posts on silver bases and connected to each other by means of three bolts threaded through crossbars.
The crossbars were gold-plated, and accordingly Yahuda placed golden cylinders inside them, creating the impression that they were made of gold, according to the biblical command:
At the Tabernacle’s entrance there were columns on which was hung a veil (parokhet) made of woven fabric. Similar columns separated the Tabernacle’s two parts – an outer sanctuary, the “Holy Place” and an inner sanctuary, “the Holy of Holies.” Yehuda decided to decorate these with Corinthian capitals, a detail that does not appear in the Bible. These too are covered with fabric.
According to the Bible, the veil fabric was specially woven on both sides so that each side displayed a different pattern. According to Rashi’s commentary, the pattern featured lions. Prof. Yahuda followed this interpretation and had a fabric woven which clearly shows the variety of the threads as detailed in the Bible “blue, purple and scarlet yarn, and of finely twisted linen” (Ex 39: 2), with images of lions on it.
The Tabernacle was covered with bolts of various fabrics and hides, which were connected with hooks. You can see in the model the precision and attention to detail in connecting the hooks to the fabrics.
The Tabernacle was surrounded by a courtyard, which also consisted of columns on which was written “And their tops were overlaid with silver.” Here too, Yahuda depended on Rashi’s commentary which interpreted this to mean that the columns were decorated with silver fillets – and so he also built the courtyard columns and decorated them with hoops of silver wire.
Finally, the walls of the Tabernacle’s courtyard were prepared with the greatest precision, and as Rashi explains, were made “like a kind of ship’s slats, with apertures, like basketry, and not like the weaver’s work.”
“Build an altar” (Ex 27: 1)
Besides the Tabernacle structure itself, Prof. Abraham Shalom Yehuda’s model also includes the Tabernacle vessels and other accessories that were used in it. For example, he built a model of the altar, square and with four corners, and like all the vessels of the Tabernacle it was attached by rings to long wooden poles for carrying it on journeys in the desert. The beautifully crafted model of the altar includes a “a grate of bronze mesh”, with “…a bronze ring at each of the four corners of the mesh”, which is placed “beneath the ledge of the altar, so that the mesh comes halfway up the altar.” (Ex 27: 4–5). See in the accompanying photo how the model follows closely the instructions in the biblical text.
Yahuda also included in the model the bronze laver used for washing the hands and feet of the priests before they entered the interior space of the Tabernacle to perform their work.
as well as the various musical instruments: trumpets, cymbals, and more, which accompanied the Tabernacle work and the Israelites’ journeys in the desert.
To these, he added small explanatory handwritten signs in beautiful script.
Small figurines were apparently placed in different locations around the model in order to demonstrate the various roles of the priests and the ceremonies and events that took place in the Tabernacle. Among the figurines are a man bringing an offering of first fruits, a priest washing his hands and feet, a guard, and a man bringing an animal for sacrifice.
Yahuda apparently made use of the model, and an accompanying drawing in his many lectures, in which he explained the construction of the Tabernacle and the daily activities that took place in it. Judging from the report in the Jewish Chronicle, it clearly aroused great interest among listeners and viewers.
An Orientalist Becomes an Artisan?
We are left with the question: what was Yahuda’s motivation in embarking on such a project that included an abundance of items, of which only some have been described here, that necessitated such precision and detail, required much deep research, and engaged professional artists in its construction?
Unfortunately, Yahuda did not leave any notes explaining his motive, work and goals. We can however find several explanations in the lectures he gave after its construction.
As mentioned, Yahuda was an Orientalist who strove to strengthen ties between Jews and Arabs, between their respective cultures and in particular between the peoples living in the Land of Israel. For him, the Tabernacle was a means of proving the deep ties that existed in ancient times between the Jews and the Egyptian people. According to Yahuda, it would have been impossible for the Israelites in the desert to obtain all the materials, means and talents to build such a magnificent Tabernacle without having learned the various crafts from the Egyptians and without having been able to take with them fabrics, metals, precious stones and other materials from the wealth of pharaonic Egypt. As he saw it, the years of hard labor described in the Bible were preceded by years of Jewish integration in Egypt, in its culture and in its physical and spiritual wealth. The Tabernacle is evidence of this.
The work of the Tabernacle, he believed, is proof of monotheism’s uniqueness over the idol worship practiced in Canaan, and in this, Jews and Muslims, for whom belief in one God is a pillar of both faiths, share common ground.
Another motive for building the model is related to an equally important issue that Yahuda grappled with in his professional life, which is the controversy over the degree of truth behind the real-world artifacts mentioned in the biblical stories. Yahuda, who as mentioned was also an expert on religious issues, had disagreements with his colleagues on these topics. Construction of the Tabernacle supported his claim for the Bible’s veracity in these matters.
And it might also be possible that between his scholarly pursuits, research, reading and writing, Yahuda perhaps also may have enjoyed working with his hands and giving free rein to his imagination, creativity and the artist in him.
In any event, after Abraham Shalom Yahuda’s death in 1951 in the United States, where he had been a professor at several universities, thousands of items from his personal archive were transferred to the National Library of Israel, including dozens of boxes containing the parts of the spectacular model he built. The Yahuda Collection at the National Library of Israel, which numbers documents and manuscripts as well as the elaborate model of the Tabernacle and its vessels, is a reflection of his multifaceted professional personality.
The photos of the Tabernacle model that are published here for the first time, are from the Abraham Shalom Yahuda Archive at the National Library of Israel. The archive is being cataloged and will be made accessible thanks to the kind donation of the Samis Foundation, Seattle, Washington, dedicated to the memory of Samuel Israel.